08/12/2011 03:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

90 Minutes in Downtown San Francisco

You're in Downtown San Francisco With Only 90 Minutes to Spare. What to See Fast and for Free If You've Already Seen the Main Sights.


The view from the Top of the Mark. [photo by Paul Iorio.]

You're in downtown San Francisco, having just finished, say, a business trip. But you've still got a couple hours before you have to get to the airport. Say you're around Market and Montgomery, you've already seen the main sights and wanna slip in something quick and obscure, something you haven't seen that's free, fun, interesting, within walking distance -- and known mostly to only insiders.

Here are nine suggestions:

1. Take the elevator to the Top of the Mark for the best views of downtown.


The view from the top of the Mark Hopkins hotel. [photo by Paul Iorio]

If you don't have time to have a drink at the legendary bar at the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, you can still check out the view -- for free! Just take the elevator to the 19th floor and go to the picture window to the right. Incomparable views of the city and the rest of the Bay Area.

The Top of the Mark is open almost continuously from 6:30 a.m. to midnight all week, though there are some hours in that span when it's closed. Check its website for details.

Location: 999 California St., atop the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel.

2. Go to church (for the art!). Visit Grace Cathedral.


The Rose Window of Grace Cathedral. [photo by Paul Iorio]


An altar piece by Keith Haring is in the cathedral. [photo by Paul Iorio]


The front doors of Grace Cathedral are replicas of Ghiberti's doors for the Baptistry in Florence, Italy. [photo by Paul Iorio.]

This Episcopal cathedral, at the top of Nob Hill, is also something of an art gallery, too. At the entrance is a copy of Ghiberti's famous Doors of Paradise -- one of the groundbreaking works of the early Renaissance. Inside is an altarpiece by Keith Haring. Elsewhere there are works by Jan Henryk De Rosen. And everywhere are stained glass windows that alone are worth the visit.

Location: 1100 California Street


3. Stroll through an obscure, colorful section of Chinatown. (Just go to Waverly and Clay Streets.)


A visually magical block in Chinatown, at Waverly and Clay Streets. [photo by Paul Iorio]

The neighborhood around Waverly and Clay is one of the most authentic and least touristy in Chinatown -- plenty of cafes, Szechuan restaurants, bakeries, interesting architecture, bustling sidewalks.

4. Walk down a 19th century alley.


Gold Street still looks a lot like the 19th century alley it used to be. [photo by Paul Iorio]

During the Gold Rush, this was Main Street for prospectors bringing back their haul. Gold miners would anchor their ships and head right to Gold, where their stash would be weighed and tested. (This area used to be the edge of the waterfront, by the way; much of the city to the east was built on landfill in subsequent decades.)

Location: A block north of Jackson St., between Montgomery and Sansome Streets.

5. See the oldest buildings in downtown San Francisco.


The corner of Jackson and Sansome, aka Jackson Square, where buildings date back to the early 1850s. [photo by Paul Iorio.]

There is a cluster of Gold Rush-era buildings along Jackson Street between Montgomery and Sansome; some places date back to just a couple years after the '49 Rush. (Most structures from that era were destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, so these are rarities.) Today, Jackson Square is home to antique shops, galleries, restaurants and office buildings.

Location: Jackson St. between Montgomery and Sansome Streets.

6. Check out a downtown tunnel that connects two continents! (Well, sorta.)


Walking through the Stockton Tunnel is kind of like walking through a time tunnel; you start in 21st century S.F. but emerge on the other side in a Chinatown of a seemingly different era. [photo by Paul Iorio.]

Connecting downtown to Chinatown, the Stockton Tunnel is pedestrian friendly and sort of time tunnelish. Enter it a couple blocks north of Union Square -- you'll be walking beneath the spot where Thursby was murdered in the The Maltese Falcon, by the way! -- and exit in a neighborhood that seems a continent or two away.

7. Browse an outdoor market that happens to be indoors.


The Ferry Building shopping center has the flavor of an outdoor market. [photo by Paul Iorio.]


A view of downtown S.F. from the market. [photo by Paul Iorio.]

Located inside the Ferry Building, the most prominent structure to have survived the '06 earthquake, the market has dozens of shops selling everything from farm fresh vegetables and whole lobsters to ceramics and ice cream. Plus, a bookstore that regularly hosts literary events and, of course, a coffee shop or two. It's a transit hub, too, where you can catch ferries to various points around the Bay.

Location: Embarcadero at Market St. (just look for the clocktower).


8. See where one of America's greatest poems was penned. (And walk up the street to take some fresh shots of the city.)


The little-known apartment house at 1010 Montgomery St., where Allen Ginsberg wrote much of his landmark poem "Howl." [photo by Paul Iorio.]

Poet Allen Ginsberg had an apartment here on the first floor, facing Montgomery, in '55 when he was 29 -- and it's where he wrote most of his massively influential poem "Howl." And walk north on Montgomery for great views of downtown.

Location: On the northeast corner of Montgomery and Broadway.


And the views of the financial district are terrific from the hilly part of that block on Montgomery. [photo by Paul Iorio.]

9. Walk Over to San Francisco's Duomo (aka City Hall).


San Francisco City Hall. [photo by Paul Iorio]

This is one of the quintessential Beaux-Arts buildings in the U.S., with a dome that some claim is taller than the dome of the U.S. Capitol (it's reportedly the fifth largest dome in the world).

Built around ten years after the 1906 quake destroyed the previous City Hall, the building also has an elegant rotunda (featured at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, by the way) and a a grand photogenic plaza as its front yard.

Location: between Van Ness Ave. and Polk St. (at Grove St.).